6 September 2009

Bang, bang.... is sensationalism dead?

On the one hand, i like Leigh Alexander because she's like a female version of me.... a complainer and a dissector (and who doesn't like themselves? ;)). To people on the outside it appears as if we're never happy, though in actual fact we, or at least I (since i'm projecting and i have no idea whether Leigh is actually like myself), am. On the other hand, i get a bit fed up with how she puts across her thoughts. She's confrontational and never offers anything back when she takes something away.

Case in point, her latest piece over at Kotaku. Sure, it's good for grabbing headlines and perhaps that's why she's in the business of journalism... but this sort of sensationalism doesn't help matters and it's exactly what we decry when watching and reading content from the mainstream news outlets.
"Is creativity dead?", she asks.... and then completely fails to deliver or comment on this very question, instead side-railing onto the topic of inspiration. My main problem with the whole thing is that neither she or her interviewees makes any differentiation between story and mechanics and it's quite clear from the article that different people are talking about one or the other and never both at the same time.

Industry veteran and Zoonami CEO Martin Hollis, most recently creator of quirky Wii Ware title Bonsai Barber, agrees that the thematic range of games isn't very broad. "Pauline Kael famously criticized films as being only about violence and romance: ‘Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang'," he says of the great film critic. "Games are virtually all about violence, or at least conquest and dominance. So we can say games are all ‘Bang Bang, Bang Bang.'"

In reality, the thematic range of games is very broad it's just that the majority of games made are similar in theme, tone, story or mechanics.... but not necessarily all of those! Just because 30 FPS were produced last year and only 15 major games were quirky non-violent affairs the majority does not negate the minority. The majority of books and films are action or love blockbusters.... they're thematically unchallenging but no one would accuse all authors or books of being devoid of creativity because the truly innovative and interesting ones are in the minority. It's misleading and a petty thing to do but it's this sort of sentiment that permeates the piece.

"There are some outliers, but we continuously make the same games about the same things," says Heir, who worked on this summer's Wolfenstein sequel. "The only things that change are our mechanics. We regularly have white male generic space marine characters as protagonists. Our NPCs are often cookie cutter and stereotypical. We use the same backdrops of post-nuclear apocalypse or colonizing Mars, or crazy fantasy worlds."

And yet these designers have learned nothing from all their years of work in the industry. How many times do we splurt out, "There are no new ideas, just rehashes." Or, looking at the more cerebral side of gaming, game theory and story writing you'll be confronted with people who say that the same stories, character archetypes and game interactions/fantasies permeate society at an almost subconscious level travelling from generation to generation from centuries, perhaps millennia, ago.

What are we expecting to happen? That just because we have invented a new medium we'll suddenly re-write these age-old staples that connect with us humans at the deepest of levels and in the most exciting way? Face it, it's not going to happen.... so where does that leave us? I'll tell you where it leaves us: right where we are and where we've always been. We're not in some dire uncreative rut, we're not about to become shallow morons who only play the same game over and over again because that's not who we've ever been. Humans don't sit down and stop socially evolving: we create, we iterate and we change.

Here's a fun fact: The majority of recreational books written in the 18th and 19th century are what we call period dramas. Can we distinguish one period drama from the next? Probably not.


Tim Schafer's and Marianne Krawczyk's comments only help to confuse the matter as they make allusions to an incestuous gaming industry that takes no input from outside itself, which results in the stagnation of the inspirational DNA of the people playing and creating games.... as if all people are identical, have the same world views and desire the exact same end-result - even if they do enjoy the same things. Guess what? I play football, i watch those footballers on TV. My idea of playing football is different to those who do play and those i play with.... and that's with a system that *I* can't change the rules for.

Of course, in the next few paragraphs they manage to save some face by stating the obvious that, yes, people do in fact take inspiration from their personal lives, from art from everywhere including within games and also without. It makes you wonder why they even said all that incestuous bullshit in the first place. Well done, the problem is solved a third of the way through the article! It's now a non-issue..... so why is there another two thirds to read through?

Risk-taking is a key element – Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello called BrĂ¼tal Legend a "significant creative risk" — just before the publisher announced it'd be the one to rescue the title from its post Acti-Blizzard limbo. Fervent gamers now look forward to its breath of fresh air.

So.... it's about risk now? Ah, i see... being creative is about taking risks; though actually, it doesn't have to be as we see in the second half of Leigh's blurb surrounding John Riccitiello's quote on how risky Brutal Legend is. Anyone looking at Brutal Legend who says it's creatively new or different from what's been before needs to go and take a shower. It's a third-person brawler set to a violent and rock/heavy metal backdrop shoved together with common mythology.... with elements of Pikmin/Overlord to boot. Yeah, a real creative risk there..... really fresh.

So, sarcasm aside, is the real question that Leigh should have been asking for this article, "What do you consider fresh?". More often than not it would appear that remixing or iteration is the name of the day and i have no problem with that. You can't improve on 'perfection'. If something works you don't change it but iterate it instead because those people who like that specific thing will probably like it in its new form.... and because it resonates in the deepest levels of our psyche/brain there will likely always be people who want to consume that thing.

And yet the pattern of the video game industry tells us otherwise. Derivative games sell, sequels are the watchword for the holidays, and the audience's appetite for war campaigns and space marines seems never to wane. What's wrong with more of the same, if that's what people seem to want?

And yet this is directly at odds with what her interviewees are saying.... this conclusion is Leigh's own placed over a carefully constructed article so that it doesn't sound idiotic. If this were the 70's and we're watching all those movies with that iconic style and form, Leigh would be saying the same thing... but here we are, 40 years later, watching movies with radically different forms.

The same games keep getting made largely because that's all the core audience is interested in. So maybe it's gamers, not game developers, who need to get a life.

The problem with any sort of analysis of gaming and gamers is that we are a minority of the market. No one looks at rap or hip hop and says that's all people buy because music is ubiquitous.... gaming, specifically video/computer gaming is not there yet. Leigh brings out the 11 million units of the Gears of War franchise sold as an illustrative point that gamers only buy one type of game (male power fantasies) whilst crying out for more meaningful things like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. What this fails to take into account is that 11 million is nothing. 11 million? The population of the US is somewhere around 300 million alone... assuming those 11m units sold are all in the US that's a penetration of 3.6%. It's nothing, negligible - a statistical blip on one data point. Now, when we have the same penetration that music, movies/TV and books do come back and make some meaningful interpretations on the likes of people as a whole. At the moment the core audience are driving the expansion of gaming (and it is expanding) so of course we are going to get the games we want.... but that's not to say that there isn't a market for more arty games or non-violent, male fantasy games.... there just aren't the people in the games market to support as many of them at the moment.

The take-home message of the article for any readers is probably that if you look at something on such a small scale and with such a narrow view then you will undoubtedly make the wrong assumptions and get the wrong answers.

Now, maybe it's just that all of these interviewee's comments have been taken out of context and placed in an article that's solely trying to push it's sensationalist agenda or maybe none of these industry veterans are seeing the bigger picture.... and that to me is far more worrying than any fear of stagnation.

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